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For Teen Moms, Just a Start
Shelter Provides Mothering Skills, Home and 'Tough Love'

Listen Listen to Tovia Smith's report.

ToJauna Jackson-Forbes, assistant director of the Just A Start House in Somerville, Mass., holds the child of one of the teen mother shelter's residents.

Photo courtesy Just A Start House

"When these programs first started they were seen as a shelter. (But) over the past six years, we became a lot more than a roof over young women's head. The reality is they need a lot more than (shelter). They need... consistent rules and people in their lives. It's understanding that if you don't do what you need to do, consequences come with it."

Just A Start House program director Robbie Sanders

Robbie Sanders and ToJauna Jackson-Forbes with child and shelter resident
Robbie Sanders, program director of Just A Start House, and ToJauna Jackson-Forbes greet one of the residents of the Somerville, Mass., teen mother shelter and the teen's infant child.

Photo courtesy Just A Start House

"If you just look at dollars, the cost of (sheltering) teen moms is less than one-third the cost of that mom or her child in residential treatment. It's one-half the cost of a mom or kid in jail for a year. Economically, it makes sense."

Lisa Goldblatt Grace, a consultant on teen living programs.

Aug. 13, 2002 -- While the teen pregnancy rate in America has been declining, the United States still has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and births in the Western industrialized world. The problem is compounded when young mothers have to fend for themselves -- homeless, jobless and unable to attend school because of their children's needs.

In the fifth installment of NPR's series on finding homes for people who need support and services, Tovia Smith recently visited a Massachusetts group house that provides shelter, guidance, support -- and perhaps most importantly, rules -- for young mothers and their babies.

Being 17 and pregnant is tough enough -- but for Shatica, it was about to get worse. Shatica's mother, who had gotten pregnant herself when she was 16, had always warned her daughter not to share her fate. So when Shatica told her mother the news, she was thrown out of the house.

Shatica had a baby, no high school degree, no job -- and now had to find somewhere else to live.

Thanks to Just A Start House, Shatica, now 19, has a place to stay. But Just A Start House provides more than just a roof: there are also curfews, classes, therapy and constant supervision. These benefits aren't optional -- according to program director Robbie Sanders, these girls need "committed consistent rules and people in their lives."

The structure, Sanders tells Smith, helps the young mothers "take responsibility for actions -- so in that way, it is a boot camp for life."

Rhonda Gurley, a specialist in early childhood development, tells Smith that most of the teens are "ill-equipped in any sense to care for a baby." Some of the girls can't even keep their babies fed, and the babies face additional risk because many of the moms suffer from depression, anger, and stress.

Despite the high level of attention -- and the cost -- fewer than half the young women who pass through these types of shelters move out into permanent places of their own. And most of the ones who do still rely on government subsidies.

There is little reliable data about the success of shelter programs. But there are indications that those who go through a program like Just A Start House do better than those who don't. That means fewer problems later -- which is money well spent, according to Lisa Goldblatt Grace, a consultant on teen living programs.

"If you just look at dollars, the cost of (sheltering) teen moms is less than one-third the cost of that mom or her child in residential treatment. It's one-half the cost of a mom or kid in jail for a year," says Grace. "Economically, it makes sense."

Few states besides Massachusetts have such programs, and even Massachusetts is now cutting back on available beds to save money. But for the ones who do live at Just A Start House, it often becomes not just a house, but a home.

"We become mom and dad and aunt and uncle," Sanders says. "That's a part of what home means."

In order to continue to provide a high quality of service and meet the many needs of the families, Just A Start House gladly welcomes donations. To offer support or learn more about the program please contact Robbie Sanders at (617) 776-8353. Consultant Lisa Goldblatt Grace can be reached at (617) 699-4998.

Other Resources

• The Just A Start House is only one part of a larger program in Cambridge, Mass. to provide services and counseling to help residents find jobs and housing, get home-improvement loans, learn job skills and finish school. Read more about the Just a Start Corporation mission statement.

• U.S. teen pregnancy statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy facts from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Second Chance Homes, an effort by the Social Policy Action Network, establishes group homes for teen mothers nationwide.

• Boston-based Alliance for Young Families.


Theresa Major and son Sergio

Theresa: A JASH Success Story

Theresa Major, pictured here with her son Sergio last year on his first day of Kindergarten. Major lived at a Just A Start House for two years. She had spent her childhood in foster homes and says she "only knew abuse." In 1999, just 16 years old, she discovered she was pregnant.

She tells Tovia Smith she "jumped and jumped" from one house to another until she came to the Just-A-Start House. "This was a wake-up call," she says. "I was 19 and the mother of a 2-year-old... no job, no education, no money to take care of a kid's medical needs."

Today, she works at the Harvard Dental School and is engaged to be married. Six years after getting pregnant with Sergio, she is expecting another child. This time, she says, she'll be able to do right by her baby from day one.
Photo courtesy Theresa Major

Listen to Theresa Major tell her own story of her search for shelter and stability:

audio A hard life in
foster care
: "I only knew abuse."

audio Scared and overwhelmed: Theresa's terrifying first days at Just A Start House.

audio A new family among other teen moms: "It's not just a place to live -- I call it home."

audio On her own, finding meaning in motherhood: "I am on top of the world."

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